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Grizzlies reveal 'fancy footwork'

18 February 09 08:48 GMT
By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

They may look slow and clumsy, but underwater cameras have revealed that grizzly bears can perform some fancy footwork when a meal is on the cards.

A BBC team followed the bears as the annual salmon migration got underway.

They filmed them using their huge feet to deftly kick dead fish from deep pools into shallower water.

This behaviour, caught on camera for the first time, meant that the grizzlies could grab the fish without the bother of getting their ears wet.

Wildlife cameraman Jeff Turner said: "Most bears will do anything to avoid getting their ears wet - they hate it."

The footage forms part of the new BBC Natural History Unit series Nature's Great Events.

Camera lust

Mr Turner has been filming grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) for the past 20 years in Alaska and Canada.

And the annual salmon migration, where millions of Pacific salmon swim thousands of kilometres to return to the exact patch of river where they were born, provided an opportunity to uncover more about the way the bears hunt.

The cameraman first tried to use remotely operated cameras to capture underwater footage of the grizzlies fishing.

But this proved problematic - the hungry bears kept on biting on the cable.

The team then replaced the thick cable with fine optical fibres, but the difficulties prevailed.

"The water was low and the salmon weren't spending as much time in the shallow parts of the river - they were concentrating on the deeper pools," Mr Turner explained.

"So we moved the equipment there, but the next problem was that the bears were using the camera as a platform - their feet were hanging over the end of the lens and they were knocking the camera over.

"But we were getting these tantalising glimpses of what they were doing in there."

Eventually, Mr Turner decided to try a different approach.

He said: "At the end of the day, I just thought rather than rely on this remote technology, the bears seemed to be tolerating us pretty well, so I just stayed in the water and hand-held the camera on the end of the pole and followed them around with it."

Standing just 2m (6ft) away from the bears, Mr Turner was able to record the grizzlies' clever footwork.

Mr Turner said: "The older, more experienced bears would look down and see where the fish was, and then they would kick it along the bottom with their feet until they got it into the shallows.

"And then they could just reach down and pick it up.

"I've seen this before from above the water, and you have a sense of what they are doing, but it is the first time that anyone has really seen what they are doing underwater."

The team also managed to capture another rare sight - baby grizzlies emerging with their mother from their den high up in the Alaskan mountains.

Mr Turner said: "It is something I've been trying to do for over 10 years. It was a real treat to crack it."

Nature's Great Events: The Great Salmon Run is on Wednesday 18th February on BBC One at 2100 GMT and is repeated on Sunday at 1800 GMT

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